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Early Scots Piercing The Veil Of The American Wilderness

The Wandering Scots Book Club’s first book selection, Bone Rattler, evokes strong images of early Scots wanderers, exploring the frontiers and wilderness of British North America and interacting in fascinating and complex ways with all of the peoples and animals encountered along the way.  As hoped, Bone Rattler offers Book Club members a wonderful window to the lives of America’s early Scottish actors.  It makes us think about Scottish American history.

So, partially as a work related experiment, I recently spent three days exploring the Taylor and East Rivers just upstream from where they come together to form the Gunnison River.  The Gunnison is responsible for carving the 2,250 foot deep Black Canyon of the Gunnison just a few miles downstream from my weekend explorations.

The smaller tributary river sections that I visited lie at about 9,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains several miles upstream of a saloon and a handful of log cabins collectively called Almont, Colorado.  IMG_2503In some ways, especially in winter, this place still evokes the wilderness outpost character that it and others like it offered travelers in prior centuries.  Undoubtedly both the Taylor and the East Rivers were loaded with beavers when the first pelt seeking Europeans appeared there.  Indeed, the beaver is back as is seen in the picture to the right.  It is the kind of place where early Scots like Bone Rattler protagonist Duncan MacCallum might have been drawn.

So, with Duncan, Lister, Hawkins, Conawego, Lt. Woolford and others in my mind, I buckled on my very modern Tubbs snowshoes to deal with 4 feet of snow, dressed comfortably in high tech lightweight winter clothing (it hovered around 0 degrees F each morning before the sun arrived) and armed with a secure knowledge of what lay ahead (i.e. Taylor Reservoir and Crested Butte Ski Area above and the Town of Gunnison below), I set off up the Taylor and then down the East River over the course of three days of exploration.

The easiest – though possibly not the safest – way up or down the rivers in the winter is on the ice shelves that form along the banks.  As I gingerly wandered along the ice and snow with the river running swiftly just below, I constantly tried to isolate all of those modern advantages that I was enjoying yet were not available to colonial era frontiersmen and women. First of all, quite noticeably absent were the hostile – and particularly violent – natives.  If one has any imagination at all, engulfed by tall, dark, dense, silent forest, it doesn’t take long to realize the immense weight of that threat. Also tragically absent were most – but fortunately not all – of the large predators capable of pretty handily devouring a human. Only lions and black bears (barely a predator) remain and very likely are present and use the river corridors for travel etc. even today – although bears are sleeping now. But no threat of a wolf pack or grizzly bear has survived the European invasion.  Still though, very cold, very isolated and even today, dangerous enough to occupy a tiny bit of one’s mind.

What makes it through loud and clear is the extraordinary courage, determination, faith, self reliance, independence and possibly above all else the driving sense of adventure that guided these first Europeans deeper into the North American wilderness. Clearly the wilderness of British North America was regarded as a terrible dark and very dangerous place in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Eliot Pattison’s descriptions in Bone Rattler speak to this early Euro-centric perception well. Roderick Nash wrote the great book Wilderness And The American Mind to explore that very point.

AlexMcKenzie_BestYet there is a theory that somehow some Scots were of a character and spirit that made them particularly well suited to life in the North American wilderness and in fact were drawn there in significant numbers while other immigrants lagged behind for the all clear. Certainly there are extensive lists of Scots who were present and active in the North American wilderness before the vast waves of real settlement progressively flooded the continent. But which Scots were they?

If you read Dr Jenni Calder’s book Frontier Scots, you will quickly get a flavor for the stark alone-ness and unknown-ness that these first explorers and traders faced. I realized that there is a real difference between the “frontier” (i.e. Edentown) and the “wilderness” beyond. The men who ventured beyond even the most rudimentary settlements on the edge of cleared land required a very special character and spirit indeed. And, interestingly, it seems that many if not most may have been displaced Gaels from the Highlands and Islands – not the Scots Irish from the Ulster plantations that eventually provided the frontier infill and became famous as America’s “frontiersmen”.

Among these early explorers, traders and trappers, Scottish surnames run rampant. One reason was that many of the commercial endeavors that drew Scots to the wilderness were Scots enterprises.  Eighteenth century Scottish trading titans, being a bit “clannish” themselves, tended to prefer to recruit from back home from their own clan or family lands. That fails to completely explain the story though.

For better or for worse, without the adventure mongering clansmen relentlessly pushing west into the wilderness, and providing a better understanding of what lay beyond, America may well never have made it past the Blue Ridge! These are the tales that the history of Scottish America will eventually tell.

To me that is a big deal. Other thoughts?

2 responses to “Early Scots Piercing The Veil Of The American Wilderness”

  1. George G. McClellan says:

    I also recommend for review, Perilous Paths, published in 2012, a small historical bioghraphy on one Robert McClellan, son of Ulster-Scots, who fought Indians under General Anthony Wayne in the North-west Territory. He and his two brothers set up in Butler Co. Ohio but Robert, wandered on as a trapper and Indian Trader along the Missouri River until he bacame a share holder with the John Jacob Astofr Fur Co. and was a member of the Wilson Price Hunt expedition, after Lewis and Clark, to the mouth of the Columbia River. He eventually returned east with the Stuart expedition and was one of the discoverers of the “South Pass.” It’s available at Amazon or as an e-book. It is also illustrated.

    • admin says:

      Thanks so much George! The story of John Jacob Astor Fur Co. and the founding and early years of Astoria is just awash in really great Scottish American stories. I will definitely take a peek at the McClellan biography. We will likely pair our next historical fiction book selection with an appropriate and complementary work of straight history and take up discussion of the two works in tandem. The story of Astoria and the Wilson Price Hunt expedition is a tempting morsel from my perspective!

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